Voices in my Head

The launch of my new poetry book, Jeopardy, last night in Charlottetown was one of the loveliest occasions of my life. Not because I was centre stage for an hour, but because of all the amazing and cherished people who were there and with whom I could share the moment – from the people I’ve known since my first season on PEI thirty-five years ago, to those I’ve come to know this past year. The occasion was so wonderful because I could thank them for enriching my life and my writing with their own efforts and achievements, their inspiring contributions to the community, their life stories, their great hearts, minds, and spirits. I also thank those people who couldn’t be there and sent me kind messages.

My grandfather who raised me loved to say that “he’d pulled himself up by the bootstraps.” (How many of you heard that one?) And there’s a good deal of truth that we have to take responsibility for pulling our boots on. But he was also a devoted union man and stressed solidarity and cooperation. As did my grandmother, raised in her parents’ logging camps, daughter of rugged individualists, but who made it clear that lumberjacks didn’t get fed and trees weren’t felled and milled without everyone working together, learning from and relying on each other.

As I read poems from my book last evening, and looked around the room, I saw all these people I’ve learned from, about life and about writing. People who, in their various ways, helped provide substance and lift and sparkle to the poems. The atoms of their experience and knowledge bonding with the atoms of mine in that magical way that helps generate the molecules of art…or science, or community service, and any other acts of creation. And we’re all creators, in diverse forms, drawing for our creations on the lives, stories, experience, knowledge, and spirit of those we respect, admire, love.

As I read my poems last evening, I could hear the resonances of others’ voices, those both in the room, and those far away in place and time. I’m speaking not only of friends whose books I have read, but friends (non-writers as well as writers) to whom I have listened, with whom I’ve communed.

book launch picMaking poetry can feel and look like such a solitary, individualistic act – compared to making music, theatre, dance. Really, though, the poems arise and cohere from so many sources, so many voices, lives, stories. My paternal grandfather as a soldier in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. My Egyptian students in a Cairo university. The ghosts of prisoners and soldiers at the penal colony in Tasmania. The voices of Adam and Eve in that mythic Garden and early women astronomers and a nurse-therapist in an eating disorder treatment centre and Lucy Maud Montgomery time-travelling to Confederation Centre of the Arts in 2018. I think of and deeply thank all the friends and family, all the mentors, who have been teaching me over the years how to listen for and to those voices, and how to filter and shape them through my consciousness and the poetic craft.

And, of course, I thank Terrilee Bulger, the fabulous publisher of Acorn Press and co-publisher of Nimbus Press. And Dr. Laurie Brinklow, founder of Acorn, and master copy-editor. And Newfoundland-Nova Scotian artist Geoff Butler for the cover image and for all his vital artwork, which can be viewed in his books The Art of War and Our Own Little World. And Matt Reid for the cover design. And the masterful Jay Ruzesky – a superb writer, professor, and editor – for editing this book. (Do secure a copy of his latest book, a travel memoir, In Antarctica: an Amundsen Pilgrimage.) And I thank Dr. Brent MacLaine for his wonderful introduction last evening. If you haven’t read his poetry, please do so. Every one of his books is a treasure.

A special thanks to The Bookmark in Charlottetown, our great independent bookstore, and a big hug to Lori, Dan, Marlene, and their staff. And thanks to Peter and Nancy Richards, wonder workers of The Buzz, to Dave Atkinson, research publicist at UPEI, and to CBC Radio and Mainstreet host Angela Walker. And to Dr. George Deitz, my freshman English professor at San Francisco State College, who advised me to drop out of university and write full-time. I obviously didn’t heed his advice, but his ability to see something redeemable in my callow verse and sophomoric prose did help me, eventually, to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work.

Finally, my deepest gratitude goes to my wife, my companion, Lee Ellen Pottie, for, well, everything. Her love of me. The love she shares with and gives to so many people. Her love of life’s richness and beauty, and, too, of those struggles, those heartaches, that are an inevitable part of life’s fruitfulness and bounty. My gratitude, specifically, for her support of my writing, her encouragement, her faith in the written word and in poetry, and her astute, wise, and relentless editorial acumen.

If you would like a copy of Jeopardy, and you’re on PEI, contact The Bookmark in Charlottetown. Or your independent bookstores elsewhere.

Thank you!

earthshine and hope

After gently urging me for years to create a Facebook site as a writer, my talented, lovely, and wonderfully-thoughtful wife, Lee Ellen, realized I would never undertake that task, and decided to create one for me. Having been raised by grandparents who reminded me at least once a week that they’d lived through the Depression and, therefore, I should never waste anything, especially gifts from other people, I have resolved to heed Lee Ellen’s words: “Now that you have a Facebook site, put it to good use, write and post something.”

I can’t think of a better focus for my first post than the new collection of haiku, earthshine, by my dear friend of almost fifty years, Chuck Brickley. I met Chuck when we were working at the legendary Duthie Books on Robson Street in Vancouver. I’d moved there from San Francisco in 1968, and Chuck and his wife, Kim, natives of a San Francisco suburb, had recently immigrated. Chuck was a musician (saxophone), devoted student of literature, and haiku poet. Kim, one of the most beautiful spirits I’ve been blessed to know, would become a gifted pre-school teacher and then college teacher in early childhood education. We formed a fast friendship.

That friendship grew when Kim and Chuck, wanting to live in the countryside, moved in 1971 one hundred miles east to Hope, where the Fraser River, after rushing south through breath-taking canyons, bends west to the Fraser Valley carved by the river as the glaciers melted. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, Hope was a destination in the 1970s for back-to-the-landers and draft dodgers. There was a Sasquatch cave tourist trap. The pool tables in the hotel pub were surrounded by loggers and highway construction workers. Sto:lo members of the Union Bar First Nation would appear on your doorstep at night with salmon, from their stretch of the river, which the government forbade them to sell. Over Chinese food in the Kan Yon, the newcomers spoke of close calls with semis – long-haul drivers dazed from sleeplessness and wired on Coke and bennies – in two-lane tunnels of the canyon. (“Never gonna drive that stoned again.”) On the town’s tennis courts and baseball fields, the afternoon winds tunneling up the valley from the ocean added to the challenge of hitting lobs and tracking down fly balls, while dare-devil hang-gliders leapt into those winds off Hope Mountain. In the marsh near Kim and Chuck’s log lodge, owned by UBC as an occasional field study location for Biology students, red-winged blackbirds trilled in the cattails.

I often visited Chuck and Kim on weekends, then moved to Hope in 1974, to a small cottage on Kawkawa Lake three miles from town, Hope Mountain looming overhead.

chuck brickley

Chuck, I tell people, was the first serious and high-quality writer I became close friends with. If we’d gathered the countless hours we talked – often while hiking and bird-watching – about writing, poetry and fiction, religion and philosophy, music, nature and ecology, and political and economic philosophy, and devoted that time to mastering and playing the stock market, we’d be multi-millionaires today, and otherwise profoundly impoverished. As with such friendships, there is so much mentoring going on – and as with the best friendships, the flow of mentorship was so constant and equal in both directions that it was impossible to know at any moment who was the teacher and who the student.

Nonetheless, I know that Chuck, and Kim, suffered generously and encouragingly through my early attempts at poetry and fiction. Chuck brought his erudition and antennae for poetic technique and form to his critiques, while Kim brought the lucidity, sensitivity, and wisdom of her glorious inner eye.

Chuck also gave me the life-long gift of playing recorders. Wanting to play an instrument that blended in more gracefully than a sax at the frequent music parties where folk and folk-rock dominated, Chuck bought and quickly became adept at recorders. I’d grown up playing clarinet and also honked rather poorly on a sax. In Vancouver, I bought a rosewood alto and a grenadilla soprano recorde, and was thrilled that I could now glide into the musical flow when people were playing Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. I also learned a great deal from Chuck about jazz, as well as rock.

I owe an enormous debt to Chuck for introducing me both to the poetry and essays of Gary Snyder and the music of The Band – for opening my mind both to Basho and Bruce Cockburn.

When it came to haiku, other poetic forms originating in Japan, and the aesthetic and philosophical traditions underlying those forms, I definitely sat as pupil at Chuck’s feet. Though he would, in his great modesty, vigorously deny that. I remember Chuck saying that, while he loved the Beat poets, and the German poet Rilke, and some modernist poets, he found himself unable to write in those modes. He’d been drawn from a young age to haiku and other Japanese forms… to the “haiku experience.”

Over the years, his mastery of haiku steadily grew, and he caught the attention of Robert Spiess, the revered editor of Modern Haiku, the premier magazine of English-language haiku. Not only did Spiess publish Chuck’s poems, he invited Chuck to be associate editor, a post Chuck served in from 1980 to 1985.

I left Hope in 1977, after attending the Summer Writing Program at The Banff Centre, working with Canadian writers such as W.O. Mitchell, Sylvia Fraser, and Eli Mandel, and deciding that I wanted to go to grad school and study Canadian literature. Chuck and Kim remained in Hope until 2006, when they moved back to San Francisco, into Kim’s childhood home, and to care for her aging father.

earthshine is a selection of Chuck’s hakiu written from the early 1970s to the present, and sequenced over a single year. In the afterword, Chuck writes, “Gazing at a crescent moon on a clear night, one may sometimes notice that the section not directly lit by the sun is graced with its own subtle shading of light. This faint glow is actually sunlight reflected from our planet. It is called earthshine.”

Chuck has always been a proponent of considerable flexibility and inclusiveness when it comes to haiku’s subject matter. He introduced me, for instance, to Michael McClintock, now a distinguished poet and scholar, who shocked much of the haiku world in the 1970s with powerful poems about his experiences as an American soldier in Vietnam. But McClintock helped transform and enrich the haiku tradition, and so has Chuck Brickley.

The natural world, keeping with the haiku tradition, is ever-present in Chuck’s poetry. But his focus often moves among the human world – more precisely, in that unity of human experience and nature which is foundational in ecology. To what Snyder called our Earth House Hold. Thus, there are poems without human presence, apart from the invisible poet…

withered marsh
one by one the last geese
lift into dawn

waterfall spray
a hummingbird draws up
to a rainbow

As well, Chuck gives us:

summer evening
the grandchild waves once more
at the empty road

the abortion.
her long drive home
through spring rain

Indian summer night
I call up my stepfather
to hear his laugh

saw switched off
the Douglas fir lingers
in the breeze

dry creekbed
the gleam of a bullet shell
the only sound

and about his wife’s mother:

still out there weeding
in her sunhat

If you want to read more, you can buy earthshine from Snapshot Press (UK) or directly from Chuck’s website

This first post is also my Christmas present, after all these years, to Chuck and Kim.